I’ve said it once and I will say it again. I would like to strangle the Airstream employee in the 70s who decided to put the tint between the window panes. And if your dual pane windows look anything like mine did, you probably feel the same.
Essentially, after forty years, the seals are often dry and cracked, letting moisture in between the panes and causing the tint to bubble. Unfortunately, the only way to fix the problem is to either buy new windows or to completely disassemble the originals and repair them. The first option costs more money, while the second costs more time.
This how-to will be the first in a series about repairing all the dual paned windows in my trailer, including the operable windows, the vista views, the stacked windows, and maybe even the wing windows. As you can see below, they weren’t in great shape to start with.
Today, my goal is to outline for you the entire process of repairing these windows, essentially distilling all the research and experimentation I had to do. While I did not pioneer this process, I hope this article can serve as a comprehensive guide, so you don’t have to do as much leg work as I did. It’s a big undertaking. I thought replacing the floor was going to be the hardest part of this project. Nope, the windows. So, if you have any questions, feel free to ask.
Supplies (Listed in order of use):
- Plastic Pry Bar
- A flathead screwdriver will also work, but a plastic tool will damage the aluminum less
- Rubber Mallet
- Drill with a 5/32″ bit
- Packet of razor blades, preferably with a handle
- A handle for holding the razor blades is not necessary, but makes the process more comfortable
- Rubber Door Stops (2 or more)
- Goof Off (Heavy Duty or ProStrength)
- Iron with steam setting and a damp towel
- Toothpaste and/or window cleaner
- 4/0 or finer Steel Wool
- Aluminum polish and microfiber cloth
- Window Tint
- I stole the small packets of desiccant from food, shoes, etc. instead of purchasing it
- Tremco Polyshim II Butyl Tape (3/16″)
- This is available by the roll both from Vintage Trailer Supply and All Glass Parts Inc.
- 1″ Aluminum Foil Tape
- CRL 5/8″ Glazing Vinyl
- 3M Black Weatherstrip Adhesive
- Soldering Gun
- Silicone Spray Lubricant
- A silicone lubricant won’t damage vinyl or rubber
- Buck Riveting Gun and Accessories
- Necessary accessories include the correct rivet set, a bucking bar, and an air compressor
- 1/8″ by 9/16″ Modified Brazier Head Aluminum Rivets
- 1/8″ by 3/8″ Modified Brazier Head Aluminum Rivets
- Parbond Sealant
- D-Shape Weather Stripping
The amount of materials you want to purchase will vary depending on how many windows you are repairing. For example, I chose to repair all nine of my operable windows plus the three stacked and five vista view windows, so I purchased six 25′ rolls of butyl tape, 60 yards of aluminum foil tape, and 100′ of glazing vinyl. I ended up with some extra, but was generally happy with the amount I purchased. On that note, if you’re only doing one or two windows, I probably have enough materials lying around for your project and would be happy to sell them to you.
Step One: Remove Windows from Airstream
To remove the windows from the Airstream, you’ll need to remove the interior screen and unscrew the flathead screw holding the window to the support arm. This screw has the potential to be rather rusted and you may need a penetrating oil or significant force to remove it.
Once the the support arms are detached, the window is only held by the upper hinge. There are two pop rivets on either side of the hinge, which you may or may not need to drill out to remove the window. I drilled them out, but it appears others have successfully removed the windows without doing so. To remove the window from the hinge, lift it to an approximately 60-70 degree angle, at which point the window will easily drop out. A second person may be helpful for this as the drop can be rather sudden; however, I did it entirely myself.
Step Two: Separate Frame
To separate the frame, the first thing you need to do is remove the old weather stripping. I did this with a plastic pry bar and a rubber mallet. Unfortunately, the glue was still rather stubborn and so I had to clean up and remove the remaining rubber later. For this, I used a razor blade and Goof Off.
Next, you will need to drill out the rivets holding the frame together. There are four buck rivets holding the window frame together in addition to the rivets holding on the hinge. You can choose to drill out all the rivets holding on the hinge or just half. As these are buck rivets, you may need to tap the head of the rivet with a punch to help center your drill bit on them.
Then you can use a rubber mallet (or a steel hammer with a block of wood) to slowly separate the two halves of the frame. If you’re lucky, it will come apart on both the top and the bottom.
Unfortunately, water often settles in the bottom of the frame and rusts the steel bar which holds the two halves together. To separate a window in this condition, pry apart the top half enough to free the top corners, then pull the corners of the glass towards you and out of the frame. (Don’t worry. The aluminum is flexible.) You should then be able to slide the bottom of the glass out. As the fit can be snug, you may need two people and/or a (rubber) hammer to carefully coax the frame away from the glass.
If both the top and bottom bars are too rusted, use a small saw to cut through the top bar. It’s best to cut the top bar because the window hinge will help hold together the frame if you cannot replace or repair said bar. Then follow the same procedure described above to remove the frame.
We experienced all three situations with our windows, although the second was the most common. At the end of this step, you should have all the glass panes removed from their aluminum frames.
Step Three: Remove Old Seals
This isn’t too difficult. Get out your razor blade and peel off the original glazing and aluminum tape.
Step Four: Separate Panes
Separating the glass panes is one of the more nerve-wracking steps. It is possible to crack or shatter the glass during this step. However, I discovered that using cheap rubber door stops and my plastic pry bar prevented that problem.
Often, the seals are already dry, weak, or split. This allowed moisture in between the panes, causing the tint to bubble in the first place. If this is the case, insert a door stop in the weak spot and tap it in further with the rubber mallet. This should open the split further and allow you to place another door stop. Continue moving the doorstops around the glass until the two panes are separated.
If the seals are not dry, weak, or split, then I found it was best to stab through the butyl seal with my plastic pry bar and begin the same separation procedure from there. It can also help to score the butyl with a utility knife.
Once the panes are separated, remove the rest of the butyl using your handy razor blades. Goof Off can help remove an remaining reside.
Step Five: Remove Old Tint
Your primary tool for this step will, again, be your razor blades. I recommend having several new blades on hand. The tint, while likely bubbly and brittle in some places, will also be stubborn in others. Steam can loosen those stubborn spots. I used an iron with a steam setting and a wet cloth, although a steam machine for removing wallpaper would also work.
Step Six: Clean Glass and Frames
To deal with the excessive dirt trapped in the frames, I chose to give them a literal bath. Then I finished removing the glue and rubber residue with a razor and Goof Off.
The glass will polish with a light abrasive like toothpaste, while the frames will need to be cleaned with a tougher abrasive like steel wool. For extra shine, use aluminum polish on a microfiber cloth as well.
Step Seven: Tint (Again!)
When tinting your windows again, there are several considerations to make. First, you’ll need to choose the location of the tint. After going through this process, I decided I never wanted to disassemble these windows again, so between the panes was out of the question. Then I learned that professionals recommend installing tint on the interior pane to extend its life, so we went with that option.
Second, select a tint which is rated for dual pane windows. There were issues in the past with tint making the dead space between the panes too hot and exploding the seals. This is not an issue with most modern tint, but I discovered that tint manufactured for cars is not rated for dual pane windows. Therefore, I chose a residential tinting company. The residential company also had the opaque tint we wanted for the bathroom window.
On that note, some renovators choose to tint the windows themselves; however, we went to a professional. In addition, we chose the best and most expensive tint on the market (ceramic tint). So, it was the largest expense of the project.
Step Eight: Create a Window Sandwich
Next, press a strip of the 3/16″ polyshim butyl tape around the inside edge of one glass pane. You can press it to either pane, but I preferred to start with the slightly larger exterior pane. Then, add a pinch of desiccant inside your butyl ring. This will help absorb any residual moisture between the panes.
Place the second pane on top and press the two together. When placing the second pane, it is nice to have a partner to situate one edge of the pane while you focus on the other. Also, wearing latex or rubber gloves will prevent you from getting fingerprints on the inside of the glass.
To complete your window sandwich, wrap the aluminum foil tape around the glass edges. It will keep the sandwich together as well as prevent the butyl from collecting dirt.
Step Nine: Add Glazing
Cut a strip of glazing to wrap around the edge of the glass sandwich. I used the 3M weatherstrip adhesive to glue the glazing to the window sandwich. This isn’t necessary. It just helped the glazing stay in place during installation. I then used a soldering gun to melt the rubber together at the seam.
Step Ten: Reinsert Window Sandwich into Frame
In theory, you should be able to reverse engineer the process of removing the glass from the frame, but, in practice, the new seal may make it tighter and more difficult. Silicone lubricant can help. Additionally, the seal may be stretched and pushed out of place by reinsertion. Spencer and I used our fingertips to push the rubber flush with the frame.
Step Eleven: Close and Rivet the Frame
We had so much trouble with this step. So much. And, of course, I couldn’t find anyone else on the internet with the same problem.
We found it nearly impossible to close the frame completely. First, we tried squeezing a frame together with a come-along strap, but only bent the edge of the frame. Then, we tried using Spencer’s bodyweight plus a backpack full of weights to force the frame together while I tapped the edge with a rubber mallet. This tapping motion in combination with the weight convinced the frame edges within 1/4″ of each other. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t close enough. Finally, we opted to rivet one half of the hinge back on. Then I levered against the other half of the holes with a series of Allen wrenches in increasing size while Spencer applied downward force, leading to this amusing scene:
Once you close the frame, you want to secure it using buck rivets. There are three kinds of rivets used in Airstreams: pop rivets, olympic rivets, and buck rivets. Pop rivets are rather weak and not waterproof, so you don’t want to use them in the windows. Olympic rivets, while stronger and more waterproof, unfortunately splay out in the back so much they would prevent the windows from closing. Therefore, you have to use buck or solid rivets, which are what Airstream uses on the exterior of the trailer.
Unfortunately, buck rivets require more expensive equipment than the other two types. To get around this problem, we borrowed the necessary equipment from my Aunt, who flies a small plane. Therefore, she has several friends who own the equipment because they build their own planes. I highly recommend borrowing a buck riveter if possible from a nearby Airstream or plane enthusiast to save money. Of course, this would have worked much better for us if I didn’t mess them up.
Then you’ll want to practice buck riveting with a partner on scrap metal before working on your windows. If you’re not familiar with how to do it, this pdf from Vintage Trailer Supply will help you out. You’ll be using the longer (9/16″) rivets for the four rivets which hold the frame together and the shorter (3/8″) rivets for the hinge.
Because there was so much force required to hold our frame together, we riveted the windows closed while someone sat on them.
Step Twelve: Seal Seams and Add Weather stripping
Use Parbond to seal the frame seams and the backs of each rivet. Then attach the D-shape weatherstripping. Even though mine had a peel-and-stick back, I used the 3M adhesive as well.
Step thirteen: Mess everything up
I thought we were finally done with the windows, but, when I tried to reinsert one, everything went horribly wrong. I didn’t know it at the time, but I only had the corners of the hinge inserted and not the middle. So, when I tried to hinge the window down into position, the rivets pulled out and the hinge contorted. Needless to say, I cried…a lot…and I could barely look at the windows after that. (And no photos of said incident exist.)
Unfortunately, when my mother and I tried to insert a second window, we confirmed (without contorting the hinge) that this was going to be a problem with all of them. So, I figured we needed to replace the buck rivets holding the hinge on with longer ones. We hoped longer rivets would create a larger bulge, which would secure the hinge better. That didn’t work either though, as the old holes were incredibly deformed at this point, which meant the new rivets would bounce around and not compress properly.
Luckily, Spencer found a solution. He doubled up the rivets, drilling new holes to better secure the hinge. In addition, he and my mother discovered the problem that damaged the hinge originally. Whether by our work or the original design, the frames had a slight curve, meaning the sides of the hinge fit securely, but the center did not. This created a twisting force on the hinge, which is what pulled the rivets out when I tried to reinsert it.
Step Fourteen: Reinsert Windows
To properly reinsert the dual pane windows, you’ll want to reverse engineer the process of removing them. Tilt the window at a 60-70 degree angle again and push it up into the hinge. A few taps with a rubber mallet on the center and a second pair of hands may be necessary. Then reattach the arms and pop in new rivets on either side of the hinge. And, suddenly, the interior of your trailer isn’t outdoors anymore.
And that’s the excruciating process we went through to repair these *beeping* dual pane windows. I’ve done my very best not to sugar coat this post because I legitimately hated these windows by step fourteen. Admittedly, they’re growing on me now that they’re back in and looking pretty, but, we’ll see. It’s a hesitant friendship.
Tutorials for the stacked and vista view windows coming whenever I muster up the energy to work on or even think about windows again.